YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Johnny Chechitelli works the overnight shift as a multimedia journalist for a local television station’s news team. He’ll shoot footage of fires, crashes or other breaking stories and write up the details for the morning newscast.
But when his overnight shift ends, he switches to his other career as a podcaster and filmmaker.
Chechitelli’s Amazing Podcasts Co., with offices in downtown Youngstown, has several podcasts in production or in the planning stages.
First up is “Thesaurus: The Word for Nerds,” which will debut May 31 on YouTube and, eventually, the Apple, Spotify and Stitcher podcast portals.
“Thesaurus” focuses on pop culture – video games, anime, comics books and the like. “It’s co-hosted by four energetic guys who take it in fun directions,” Chechitelli says.
While all of Chechitelli’s podcasts will have specific topics, organized crime has always been his go-to, and he’s currently developing a crime podcast about the mafia in Youngstown.
He also recently wrapped up a series about the Youngstown mob that will premiere this summer on Truth.Media, a company owned by Marc Smerling, an Emmy Award-winning producer, writer and director.
Chechitelli got involved with him a few years ago. Smerling called him after learning about Youngstown’s colorful and violent mob history.
At the time, Chechitelli had been working on a local crime podcast with Allan May, the Cleveland-based author of “Crimetown: U.S.A.: The History of the Mahoning Valley Mafia.”
Chechitelli’s podcasts fall along two business pathways. Some are designed to run indefinitely, generating revenue from advertising spots. “Thesaurus” is the first of this type.
The rest he makes with an eye toward selling them to a filmmaker or producer, who would turn it into a movie or a TV or streaming series.
Chechitelli says podcasts are a feeding ground for Hollywood producers and directors searching for new material. “It’s hard to sell anything [to a filmmaker] unless you have a podcast,” he says.
Hollywood now looks at podcasts the same way it looked at graphic novels and comics books 20 years ago, he says. Studios bought them up as fodder for films, and writers knew they needed to publish a graphic novel that had a cinematic structure if they wanted to catch the eye of a filmmaker.
Today, podcasts fill that role.
“If you send them a spec script, they won’t read it,” Chechitelli says. “But they’ll listen to your podcast.”
Filmmakers are especially keen on podcasts with thousands of listeners with a story that can be told visually.
That’s custom-made for Chechitelli, whose first love is filmmaking.
The Austintown native is known for his comedy feature film “Worst. Christmas. Ever” (2001) and the documentary “Youngstown: Still Standing” (2010).
His latest is the short film “Help!” It depicts the horror of the war in Ukraine by focusing on a young mother who rushes to her bombed out home as air-raid sirens sound.
Chechitelli shot the 5-minute film in one day last month at an abandoned section of the old concrete company homes in Campbell.
He originally planned to enter the short in the national No Sleep Til Film Fest. The competition starts with an email prompt that lists the subject criteria for the film; contestants then have 24 hours to write, shoot, edit and submit a short film.
Chechitelli was ready to go but dropped out at the last minute after reading the prompt. He wanted to make a film about the war in Ukraine but the prompt specified that at least three genres – comedy, romance, horror, action, etc. – must be incorporated.
His subject matter was too serious for such an approach, but he decided to make the film anyway – and in the hurried spirit of the competition.
Chechitelli’s budget for the film was next to nothing. But with the company houses as a realistic location for a war-torn village, all he needed was a few actors who spoke Ukrainian.
He found them after posting a notice on a Facebook group for Ukrainian nationals living in Cleveland.
The main characters are played by Iryna Tkachenko and her 8-year-old son, Martin Tkachenko. The only other speaking role went to Natasha Lehetska.
Tkachenko came to America three years ago after marrying a Cleveland man whom she met in her homeland.
Her mother, stepfather and two brothers still live in Dnipro, a major city in east-central Ukraine. Tkachenko’s older brother is in the Ukrainian Army, battling the invading Russians but she does not know where.
“[Making the film] was very hard [to do] but very important,” Tkachenko says in her Ukrainian accent. “It is something we could show to the world.”
The short film marked her first effort as an actor but she had no trouble becoming the character. “My feelings were very real,” she says, “and my son was very proud to be in it.”
Tkachenko stays in touch with her mother, messaging her every day.
She made the decision to leave Ukraine after Russia seized the Crimea in 2014 and began moving into the Donbas region. She implored her mother to come with her but neither she nor her stepfather wanted to leave their country.
Now Tkachenko doesn’t know when she will see her family again.
“I looked through old pictures of my brother and cried,” she says. As the war started, her brother sent his pregnant wife to Germany. “She just had a baby there,” she says, and cannot leave that country now.
While Dnipro is “not yet surrounded,” she says life there is tense.
Still, she is proud of her country and grateful for how “the whole world is doing little and big things for tiny Ukraine, which is under pressure from … a monster.”
For Chechitelli, the goal of the film was to put a human face on war. Tkachenko and her son were invaluable in doing just that.
“Imagine if you had to go to work and you had kids at home” when the air-raid siren went off, he says.
He hopes the film inspires people to help by contacting one of the humanitarian aid groups listed in the closing credits.
To view “Help!” for free, go to YouTube, where all of Chechitelli’s content can be found.
Pictured at top: Johnny Chechitelli in his downtown Youngstown office.